February 26, 2021

That Good Thing That Trump Did

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith | Feb. 13, 2021

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson, in his 2014 memoir, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption."

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “There are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those around him.”

Tolstoy’s prophetic words are especially insightful when considered in connection with America’s deplorable, and woefully discriminatory, criminal justice system.

It is a system which, in the words of Bryan Stevenson, “treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent." 

It also helps to know low people in high places.

In 1994, Bill Clinton, that paragon of liberal values and friend to minorities and the poor, pushed through a massive crime bill that hurt his presumed constituents. The 1994 federal crime bill gave federal approval for states to pass repressive crime laws. By the end of 1994, all states had passed at least one mandatory minimum law.

Twenty-eight states then adopted “three-strikes” laws. These laws led to mass incarcerations. Defendants who had committed the third of three relatively minor crimes found themselves facing life in prison. The three strike disproportionate penalties focused on street crimes rather than white-collar crimes. Thus, three-strike penalties fell more heavily on minorities and poor people.

Such cruel and inhumane laws do not exist in other “civilized” nations. In Norway, for example, life imprisonment is restricted to military violations, e.g., for aiding the enemy during times of war. But since no Scandinavian country has fired a shot in anger for more than 200 years; life imprisonment in Norway is effectively nonexistent.

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people by detonating a bomb inside a van in Oslo. He then embarked on a mass shooting on the island of Utoya, where he killed 69 people participating in a workers’ youth league summer camp. I’ll spare you the chilling details.

In July 2012, Breivik was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism. Surely, you might think, this horrific crime deserved — at minimum — life imprisonment.

You would be wrong.  At the conclusion of his trial, Breivik was sentenced to 21 years prevention detention! After serving a portion of that sentence, he would be eligible for parole. According to Professor Hans Petter Graver of Oslo University, “[t]he main principle behind the Norwegian system is not for people to spend their life in prison, but for them to be reintegrated into society.”

Which brings us to Chris Young.  Young’s upbring warrants mentioning before we get into his entanglement in America’s malefic criminal justice system. Born in Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1988, he never had any relationship with his father. His mother battled serious substance abuse problems and was in and out of jail. He battled sickle cell anemia and lived under adverse circumstances that included no lights and water. In the winter, his mother heated the house with kerosene and fought the darkness with the light of candles.

When he was old enough to get a job, he worked at a funeral home. This felt like a dead-end, especially when compared to his neighbors who dealt drugs, pulling him inexorably in that direction.

In December 2010, Young was charged with drugs and gun violations. He was one of 32 people, some of them gang members, whom federal prosecutors alleged were involved in drug trafficking in Clarksville. Because Young had two prior drug-dealing convictions, the new charge triggered a provision requiring a mandatory life term if he were found guilty. Other defendants entered a plea deal and received 15 years;  Young had the temerity to go to trial. Found guilty, he received a life sentence.

Young was admittedly a minor player; however, because they took the plea deal, the other defendants received only 15 years. The Chief U.S. District Judge in Middle Tennessee, Judge Kevin Sharp, although bound by law to impose the draconian sentence, was so troubled by it that he resigned his lifetime appointment after serving only 6 years. 

“Each defendant is supposed to be treated as an individual,” said Sharp, “I don’t think that is happening here.” Judge Sharp joined Sanford Heisler, the respected civil rights and employment law firm in Nashville, with the sole objective of working to free Young, who had impressed him with his intelligence, remorse, and pledge to be a better citizen.

“African Americans, women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities don’t have the same opportunities,” Sharp says. “That for me is something that’s important, making sure the playing field gets leveled.”

Stung by the memory of the unfairness of the sentence he was forced to impose, Sharp was that rare breed of man who followed his conscience.

Finally, after almost 10 years, he got the attention of a famous rapper’s wife, who contacted the White House on his behalf. On the very last day of the last presidential term, Young was granted a pardon. He is now a free man. Left behind were thousands of similarly situated prisoners.

I leave you with this question: “What shall we make of this?” 

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